Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bread: where earth and heaven meet

Proper 16 B
Aug. 26, 2012
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
John 6:56-69

You are not alone in thinking that the images Jesus uses are indeed, as he asks his disciples in today’s gospel, offensive. Drinking blood and eating skin – not a pretty picture. Bread? Yes, wonderful. Wine? Yes, as well. Communion? Yes, we those we get. But body and blood? Why such a sacrifice? Why such a commitment? Why such a risk?

What is shocking about today’s gospel is that Jesus lets a whole lot of his disciples go. For these folks, this imagery is just too much. Is it the grotesqueness? Is it the commitment? Is it the allusion to sacrifice and death? For whatever reasons, they walk away, and Jesus gives even his inner circle that option, too. Just how convincing is Peter’s answer? “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.”

One of the earliest images of Jesus, from the earliest days of the Christian community, are images of Jesus sharing bread with his friends. They are depictions of communion, of the Last Supper. It was not until centuries later that Christians dared depict Jesus on the cross – remember that many of those early Christians faced martyrdoms and deaths of their own. Perhaps in the early days of the church they were living the scandal of the cross – of the God made human – sharing all too closely in his life and death – to want to reflect on it in art or symbol. We, now free from danger of crucifixion ourselves, can find the cross a meaningful symbol of the God who walked among us as one of us.

Our English word “companion” has relevance here. Its roots “com” meaning “with” and “pan” meaning “bread” imply that a companion is one who is with you with bread. A companion is one with whom you share your bread, your nourishment, your life, as you walk along your way. And indeed, Jesus, our divine companion, continues to share the bread of his eternal life with us, even if we, like Peter, are not always absolutely convinced that walking along with Jesus is a wise thing to do.

Full confidence in the faith is hard. Oh, that we had the confidence of Solomon, to build that Temple for God, the confidence, even to be humble enough to ask God for wisdom and not only glory. Yet to be honest, we must admit that the sayings of Jesus are difficult, and the life that Jesus bids us live carries with it costs and sacrifices.

Maybe the best we can do is eat the bread. To stand in line with everyone else, put out our hands and take a piece of that bread in faith. Maybe the important thing is getting up week after week to do this: to listen to the scriptures, to spend some time in quiet prayer, to worry about how hard it really is to follow Jesus, and then, nonetheless, get up in that line anyway and put out our hands, take the bread and eat it.

That’s the power of the sacrament, and the power of the community. We are not in this alone. On any given day, when the words of Jesus are just too hard to understand, or too difficult to follow, someone next to us will be able to. We are in this together: that is the essence of communion, of COMMON prayer, of companionship. We take, we eat – we may not be able to “get it” that day, or every day, but by taking, by eating, we DO “get it” – it’s not so much the eating, but the abiding – the Christ dwelling in us and we in Christ that happens when we stand here, side by side, hands outstretched, ready to take Christ into our selves, our souls and bodies ,whether we know what we are doing or not.

The bread of life and the cup of salvation, broken and shared, Holy Manna, bread from heaven, where earth and heaven meet.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Wisdom of Solomon, or how are you going to live YOUR life?

Proper 15 B - August 19, 2012
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Ps. 111; John 6:51-58

God is giving King Solomon the equivalent of the pep talk right before the Big Game. God here is Solomon’s life coach, his mentor, his personal trainer and inspirational speaker. Tell me what you need, God asks Solomon.

Solomon then speaks, we can surmise, from the heart: he does not ask for riches or personal gain – he’s not just out to win the game. He asks for wisdom, discernment, the ability to know right from wrong – gifts which God places in his heart. Then we read something about God’s character as a coach. God is not one of those “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” kind of mentors. You can see from the advice God gives Solomon that God is in this for the long haul. HOW Solomon lives is God’s “everything”, God’s “only thing”, God’s goal: “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments … then I will lengthen your life.” God is assuring Solomon that he will succeed: that he will be wise and discerning and rule over a great kingdom – but what is really important to God is HOW Solomon lives his life, how he stays in relationship with God and with the kind of life God wants him to live.

So, was Solomon BORN with this ability to be King? Yes, his wisdom was a gift from God, but even the question Solomon asks reveals this quality before God grants it. Was it a product of his nurture? Was it his privilege as a king’s son? Was he sent away to the ancient equivalent of the playing fields of Eton?

In some research[i] I came across about education, the headmaster of an elite prep school and the principal of an inner-city charter school worked together to try to understand the influence of character on their students’ lives: other than high test scores, what factors could reasonably predict whether students would get in to college – and not only get in to college, but lead lives that were not just successful or even happy, but meaningful and fulfilling. Character, these educators determined, could be nurtured and developed – skills could be learned and practiced as math problems and grammar and critical thinking could be learned and practiced. In some of these traits, the children from the charter school had more “character” than the children in the elite school – more resilience, more learning from hardship and disappointment, more experience in picking themselves up and succeeding after a set-back.

The educators’ goal for these children was more than just getting them into college: it was the quality of these children’s lives. It was how they lived, what meaning they made – to paraphrase God’s blessing of Solomon, it was the HOW of life that mattered.

This kind of wisdom is sometimes not about being literal. In the Gospel, are the people around Jesus really so dense as not to understand a metaphor? Are they really so thick and rule-bound and goal-driven not to see that Jesus is talking about the HOW of life?

All summer, it seems, we have been hearing about bread from Jesus: the feeding of the 5000 with baskets left over, the bread of life, the living bread, the bread from heaven. So much bread, so much abundance – God will, God does satisfy our needs.

But that then raises the HOW question for our own lives: we have the living bread; now what do we do with it? How do we increase it, share it, multiply it? What does it mean in our own lives to be blessed with such abundance? If we give it all away, won’t there still be enough to go around?

In that story of the rich kids from the prep school and the poor kids from the charter school we note that all of those students had some measure of abundance. They all had some piece of what Jesus would call the living bread. The amazing thing is that their teachers began to see those children as more than their test scores or their parents’ income or the differences in where they went on their summer vacations. Their teachers cared about developing their characters – about increasing that life-giving “how” at the center of what it means to be human. Who knows if those teachers were “Christians” or not – probably not; but what they shared with their students was a piece of the living bread.

We all know places – people – in this world, places and people both near and far – who could use some of this living bread. Week after week we are reminded of this bread, of how precious it is and how much of it there is to go around. In our individual lives, and in our parish life, as we “get back into” the busy-ness of the church year, where will we share our bread, the bread that has been given to us, the bread that brings life to the world?

King ... or President?

For more about how Solomon got to be king, view this video from the Odyssey Network, with commentary on 1 Kings and reflections on how it might apply to our current climate of political campaigning and vying for power.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Bread of Compassion

Proper 14-B
August 12, 2012
2 Samuel 18:5-9,15,31-33
Ps. 130; John 6:35,41-51

We delude ourselves, don’t we, when we think we live in a world of justice, a world that has “progressed” beyond the blood vengeance of the honor-shame cultures depicted so shockingly in our Old Testament readings this summer.

We read horrible stories about women who have “dishonored” their families – thereby justifying their killing by their own brothers – stories from “far away” places like the Middle East or Afghanistan. We are appalled: how can “honor” be more valuable than a person’s life – than a woman’s life?

But how much more shocking is it that six Americans at prayer in their house of worship in suburban Milwaukee are gunned down – allegedly because someone thought they were Muslims – Muslims, our “enemies,” who have brought “shame” to America. In that horrible scene, remember, there was an example of heroic justice. The Sikhs praised the Wisconsin policeman who risked his own life to prevent more tragic deaths, the policeman who knew right from wrong and acted without thought of himself to aid the people he was sworn to protect and serve.

When we read Bible stories like these from the Book of Samuel, we are tempted to draw a line between them and us: those pre-Enlightenment days were violent and cruel; men with power acted capriciously. Today we are judicious and reasonable; we are governed by law, not ruled by force.

Like the shootings in the Milwaukee, the news reports are full of examples that the capricious use of power and violence are with us still. Even the most “enlightened” of our leaders love to rattle swords. But just as we saw that moment of heroic justice, in the actions of the policeman in the Sikh Temple, even the power of King David at his most self-centered and brutal is tempered by the judgment and justice of God.

The background of today’s story of the death of Absalom begins with David’s dishonest dealings to gain Bathsheba, the woman he loves. The story of how he arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, must have been well known in Israel – disapproving gossip was a common then as it is today. David also allowed his oldest son, Amnon, to rape his own sister, David’s daughter, Tamar – and when David took no action to avenge this terrible act, Absalom did so on his own. He plotted and killed his older brothers, and took advantage of growing discontent with David’s bloodthirsty rule to build an army to rebel against his father, and to replace him himself as the King of Israel. That is the cause of the battle that opens our reading today. David, full of military power, defends the throne, but David, full of humanity as well, still does not want his rebellious but beloved son killed. David’s generals, fighting for their king, find it foolish to let the leader of the rebellion to live, and Absalom is killed.

David rules Israel as King, not as God’s puppet. He came to power with Yahweh’s favor, but he makes his own decisions, some good, some not so good. At several points in the story, we read of God’s great displeasure, and the consequences are not good for David. His beloved sons are killed, he must fight and scheme to stay on the throne, and what he wanted most as the crowning achievement of his reign, the building of the Temple, is denied to him. Even David, beloved of God, has offended God’s justice. There is more than honor and shame and vengeance; there is right and there is wrong, and the heroic ones act in God’s name to restore God’s justice.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus offers what God has been offering all along: life. Not vengeance or jealousy or violence or brutality – not hunger or thirst or want or deprivation. God offers life. God also offers freedom – God created humans with the ability to do things – with agency. People may do terrible things, as David did, but people can also do wonderful things, like cultivate wheat, and make bread – bread that is made by human hands is so wonderful that when Jesus tries to describe to his followers what the love of God is like he uses bread. You ask what I am like? I am like bread. I am bread. The bread of life.

But curiously, bread is a completely human creation. Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her close observation of nature, that if the human race were to die out, so would wheat.

“Even ten square miles of wheat gladdens the hearts of most people,” she writes, "although it is really as unnatural and freakish as the Frankenstein monster; if man were to die, I read, wheat wouldn't survive him more than three years."

Wheat, it seems, must be cultivated to produce grain to make bread. Wheat left to its own devices produce smaller and smaller grains, unable to support itself, much less the human race.

God gives us the wheat, just as God gives us love and justice and compassion and courage and the ability to know right from wrong. It is up to us to take those gifts, to cultivate them as carefully as we do wheat, and to use them, as God intended, to bring life to the world.